Judge Dennis Prince proclaims this picture is better than your average shootout spectacle.
Our review of 16 Blocks (Blu-Ray), published December 21st, 2006, is also available.
"Jack…all ya gotta do is look the other way…"
Where is it that old cops go to die? While far too many are struck down before their time on the urban battlefields, some still manage to survive into their twilight years. Although they may have admirably fulfilled their duties over the course of their careers, the rigors of their assignments can leave them wanting to peacefully complete their service. What happens, then, if those plans for graceful exit are abruptly interrupted in life-threatening fashion? In Warner Brothers' new 16 Blocks release, a street-weary detective is about to find out.
Facts of the Case
"I believe life's too long and people like you make it longer."
So grumbles Jack Mosley (Bruce Willis, Die Hard With A Vengeance), an aging NYPD cop with a burning in his eyes but none for his profession. Much like the flaccid belly that hangs over his belt, there's likewise a whiskey induced fog that all but obscures over his wakefulness. Now regarded as a do-nothing officer, Jack swigs a bottle from his disheveled desk, eager only to edge his way to retirement while staying under the radar and generally out of sight. He's befuddled and even agitated, then, when his lieutenant asks him to escort a key witness sixteen blocks across town to the courthouse to provide critical testimony before a grand jury. Now, with this "star witness"—an incessantly prattling petty thief, Eddie Bunker (Mos Def, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy)—riding in the backseat, Mosley's certain he's been on this job far too long. Exasperated by the snarled traffic and the unending blather from the backseat, Mosley pulls over to the nearest liquor store to finger a bottle of Canadian Club and soften the pounding in his head. Meanwhile, the handcuffed Eddie, left in the curbside car, finds himself looking down the barrel of a gun when two thugs attempt to rub out the witness. Jack saves the day only to learn that Eddie holds eyewitness testimony which will expose the illicit tactics of several of Jack's peers, including Jack's former 20-year partner, Frank Nugent (David Morse, The Green Mile). Despite Frank's urging that Jack merely step aside and not involve himself in this particular matter, Jack's unable to stand by and see this witness silenced—permanently. Now, Jack and Eddie must find a way to get to the courthouse before the opposing officers can silence the both of them.
Simply put, 16 Blocks works well because it knows its boundaries and is clear in its intent. It succeeds on so many levels in a time when much of this police action fare has become little more than a nauseating swirl of bombast without base. At first glance, this certainly looks like just another "cop flick" but, within its first five minutes, it reveals itself as something more. It's a smartly-written and well-executed narrative that bucks the current trend of frenetic pacing in welcome deference to properly developing its characters and providing action sequences only when they actually serve the plot. Director Richard Donner (Conspiracy Theory, Lethal Weapon) and screenwriter Richard Wenk seem to gel here and deliver a film that utilizes deliberate pacing, delivers unexpected twists, and provides its actors an opportunity to perform (rather than be upstaged by explosive set-pieces). Equally effective is Glen MacPherson's cinematography and Steve Mirkovich's editing, both combining to give the usually sprawling New York City landscape a highly claustrophobic feel, adding perfect punctuation to the film's premise.
If you're expecting to see the typical Bruce-Willis-as-John-McClane exploits, forget it. Almost unrecognizable upon initial appearance, this is a paunchy, pallid, bleary-eyed Willis. He effectively turns his usual tough cop character inside out to reveal a bloated and burned out drunk who's too spent to do his job anymore. When he puts down the first would-be assailant, Willis skillfully infuses Jack with an appropriate level of dead-eye reflexes yet maintains that this particular cop can only do so between extended gasps for air. Inarguably an accomplished action film favorite, Willis seems to effortlessly sidestep his 1990s typecasting to turn out a performance that's genuinely engaging and fully entertaining.
Mos Def unexpectedly shines as Eddie Bunker. His nasal, whiny voice is immediately irritating, providing the viewer the same annoyance as Jack. Yet, just as you begin to wonder if you can tolerate Eddie for the ensuing 95 minutes, his character compellingly emerges as a former criminal with aspirations to succeed in—of all things—a birthday cake business, if he can only stay alive. Def manages his character with remarkable precision, effectively toning down his quirky vocalizations and random ramblings to provide deft commentary and exposition. Most notable is that Def doesn't shrink in Willis' presence yet, likewise, restrains himself from overshooting the mark. The result is a well-balanced performance that compliments Willis' and succeeds in presenting an embattled duo that elicits genuine empathy.
If you enjoy corrupt baddies, you'll revel in hissing David Morse here. He's cool and calculating as he works to influence Jack into handing over Eddie yet is disturbingly explosive when Jack defies his former partner's insistences. Morse plays his steely determination with unwavering precision as he and his rogue cop cronies are determined to snuff out any possibility that Eddie will testify. This determination gives way to captivating moments of desperation as Morse's character senses his plot is unraveling at the hands of a hung over yet formidable adversary, Jack.
Warner Brothers releases yet another day-and-date HD/SD hybrid disc alongside the standard DVD. Like Rumor Has It… and Firewall, this too is offered in the HD-15/DVD-9 hybrid disc format. The HD side delivers 16 Blocks in an exquisite 2.40:1 widescreen transfer. The opening shot, a black-and-white sequence that foreshadows a key standoff appearing later in the picture (a la Swordfish), provides an incredible pan up to a S.W.A.T. officer's rifle scope that is so crisp and clear that it has to be seen to be believed. From there, the rest of film is likewise embellished with superior detail levels, deep black levels, and perfect color saturation. The audio is presented in an enjoyable active Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 mix that excellently separates the channels to provide a realistic feel of a crowded city environment. Front channel separation is particularly well managed as off-screen dialogue is perfectly distanced from the character in frame (see Chapter 12). You'll also be able to count each bullet casing that clatters along the ground. The low-end workout is somewhat limited yet it rumbles in pleasing fashion at the appropriate moments. From a purely technical standpoint, playback of this HD transfer went smoothly and without incident (and it's recommended you perform Toshiba's easy firmware upgrade to version 1.2).
The flipside of the disc contains the SD transfer of the film, also framed at 2.40:1 and anamorphically enhanced. Frankly, this is a respectable transfer that, while it can't compete with the HD presentation, should be considered among the better work from Warner Brothers. It's accompanied by a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround track that works well. The extras, also in 480p standard definition, are found on side two, beginning with what's billed as a "shock alternate ending." It's hardly a shock, per se, but it's certainly more somber that what appears in the theatrical cut. Next up is an entertaining 20-minute look at various deleted scenes, introduced on screen by Donner and Wenk. A nice touch here is the use of a quasi In Movie Experience: a picture-in-picture inset of Donner and Wenk appears over the scenes as the two comment on the various content and their reasons for excising it. An anamorphic trailer wraps up the bonus features. The only disappointment here is the lack of a feature-length commentary track.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The only disappointment with 16 Blocks is its promotional artwork, that featuring Willis and Def huddled against a wall. This image suggests this is another Willis vehicle drawn from the Die Hard With A Vengeance formula where a white cop and a black contemporary are thrust into a dire situation. The situation is dire but any racial messaging is thankfully absent. Unlike Samuel Jackson's character that continually pounded his chest over race and class inequalities, here Willis and Def join as personalities and not as superficial stereotypes. The result is the characterization is much better realized and the twists are significantly more effective when they occur. The key art for the film tends to promote the aforementioned superficiality, perhaps fearful that a character drama may not pull in movie-goers. In actuality, the film that does unfold is far better than what was sold outside the theater box office (or on the DVD keep case).
16 Blocks is definitely an overachiever and a welcome departure from some of the mind-numbing, in-your-face police thrillers of the day. Look for excellent performances and a script that isn't afraid to take its time in delivering an engaging conflict. As for the HD transfer, it's top-notch and provides excellent visual and aural elements to fully enhance the viewing experience. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Alternate ending
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